Cocooned under duvets and blankets, the bed piled high with books, packets of seeds, boxes of tissues and Josef the cat, I cough and sneeze my way through a winter cold. In the night, when I can’t sleep I slip into the world of Victorian England through the eyes of Mrs Beeton’s book of Household Management. Whilst I have been ill, the house has fallen into untidy chaos, the ashes need taking out from the fire, and I haven’t blacked the fireplace since I was about 22 (yes, I really did used to do that). Surely Isabella Beeton’s guide to every aspect of good household management in Victorian Britain can help me in my hour of need?
I wade through chapters describing how to cook dinner for 18 people in September, how to singe poultry, how to keep beef, how to apply leeches, how to clean the banisters and, now we get to the crux of the problem, how to issue instructions to my Parlour Maid.
Now I know why I am ill and run down ! I have been trying to run a house, cope with two demanding cats and a large garden and all without domestic help. According to Isabella, good household management requires a Butler, a Footman, a Second Footman, a Coachman, a Groom, a Stable Boy, a Lady’s Maid, a Parlour Maid, a Housemaid, a Dairy Maid, and Laundry Maid. And if the full compliment of staff can not be afforded, then at the very least, I need a General Servant.
Feeling by now even more exhausted, but a little peckish I turn to Mrs Beeton for some ideas about what to eat when feeling unwell. Published in 1861, this book is full of recipes to aid the recovery of the convalescing patient and I can’t wait to see what she suggests. But dishes such as Calf’s Foot Blancmange, Eel Broth, Gruel, Stewed Rabbits in Milk or a beverage made from boiled Irish moss make me feel positively bilious! Weak as I am from coughing I feel like summoning my Lady’s Maid, or the Butler, the odd job man, even the postman would do! Anyone who might save me from Mrs Beeton’s stewed rabbits in milk! This Victorian night time reading is turning into a nightmare!
I decide to get out of bed and make myself a soothing drink with my homemade Raspberry Vinegar made from my Grandmother, Dora’s recipe. When I was a child she would warm the rich, red mixture for me on the Rayburn as I sat on the wooden stool beside her. And with my toes on her colourful, handmade rag-rug, she would hand me a little cup of this magical, sharp and sweet mixture which soothed, warmed and calmed my sore and tickly throat then, as it still does now.
I pour a generous amount into a favourite glass, as I would a cordial and top it up with hot water and extra honey and I let the memories and pleasure of being in my Grandma’s kitchen and being taken care of flood back.
For when we are ill, we all feel like little children again and want to be taken care of, don’t we?